Between Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC's defection from MasterCard Inc. to Visa Inc. and the banking consolidation being driven by the financial crisis, the debit market could be in for a shake-up, analysts said.
Royal Bank confirmed Thursday that it will move its U.K. and U.S. debit cards to the Visa network in the fourth quarter of next year.
The Edinburgh company issues debit cards in the United States through its Citizens Financial Group Inc. of Providence, R.I. The unit is MasterCard's fourth-largest U.S. debit issuer, according to The Nilson Report.
But Royal Bank is not the only, or even the largest, MasterCard debit issuer potentially in play. Its top debit issuer is Washington Mutual Inc., which the Purchase, N.Y., company lured away from Visa in 2005.
Wamu has been widely reported this week to be up for sale. The interested buyers are said to include JPMorgan Chase & Co. (which uses Visa for most of its debit cards), Citigroup Inc. (a MasterCard debit issuer), and Wells Fargo & Co. (a Visa issuer).
"The recent potential for the financial services landscape to be altered meaningfully has brought into question what the implications could be to network companies," Sanjay Sakhrani, an analyst at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc., wrote in a research note.
However, "while we have generally seen banks move entire debit card portfolios to one brand … it has really depended on the size of the acquiring institutions." Large institutions, including Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase, are more willing to issue debit cards on more than one network, Mr. Sakhrani wrote.
A spokeswoman for Royal Bank wrote in an e-mail that it is switching networks because Visa offered "almost three times the global acceptance of Maestro," MasterCard's PIN debit network.
MasterCard said in a prepared response to American Banker's questions that it believes it has "a highly compelling debit proposition" for issuers. Citizens said it would keep its credit cards with MasterCard. The network said it and Royal Bank "will continue to work together on global ventures."
Tony Hayes, a partner in the financial services division of Marsh & McLennan Cos.' Oliver Wyman, said Royal Bank's decision was more significant for the precedent it could set.
"In revenue terms, the impact may not be too pronounced" for MasterCard, he said.
However, "the market share that each network has and the trend in market share is a powerful consideration when other banks are deciding which network they should use." That's because "if some networks seem to be winning and others seem to be losing, it may influence other network choices."
MasterCard, while taking steps to catch up to Visa, still lags in debit volume. Mr. Hayes said financial institutions tend to select the largest, most experienced partners, because they can deliver resources and new products more easily — and less expensively.
"In general, banks look to economics, first and foremost, but also the product capabilities and also the future road map for how the network will continue to extend debit capabilities," Mr. Hayes said.
Christopher Mammone, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG, wrote in a note to investors Wednesday that the Royal Bank portfolio would be "a significant loss" for MasterCard, "particularly given the timing," since it introduced an integrated debit processing system in April that can handle signature debit, PIN debit, and automated teller machine transactions.
MasterCard "should be gathering better momentum in debit," Mr. Mammone wrote.
Stacey Pinkerd, Visa's head of global consumer debit products, said the San Francisco company is constantly in contact with prospective issuers.
It can take "months, if not a year or more," to make a deal, he said.
"Certainly, financial considerations are a big part of any discussion," but an issuer's choice of a debit network is more strategic, Mr. Pinkerd said.
"We offer a set of products, a set of expertise, an analytical approach, and a framework for targeting" cardholders, he said.